Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where You Bean?

There's a lot more to buying from a farmer's market than just getting the freshest, most seasonal produce. There's also an opportunity to encounter new foods and varieties of fruits and vegetables. Throughout the course of this summer, I've learned about at least 10 new types of produce that I was completely unfamiliar with (like purple beans, miniature heirloom sweet peppers and French radishes), by simply paying regular visits to my local greenmarket. Last weekend I came across a completely new strain (to me, anyway) of shell beans called cranberry beans. They look a lot like shell fava beans, only they're streaked with lovely magenta striations, hence their colorful name.

I'd never cooked with shell beans before, which are really just fresh beans that are still housed in their long pods. They cook much faster than dried beans and don't require any soaking time to rehydrate, not to mention that much like their dry counterparts, they're pretty dirt cheap (mine were 68 cents!). Once they're out of those cozy little pods, cranberry beans actually look a lot like white cannellini beans, but are slightly stronger in flavor, bringing a slight tartness to the party that mild cannellini's don't quite have. But that doesn't mean you can't apply the same cooking techniques to these little guys. I actually took a page from the white bean playbook myself, making a dish based on a combination of two classic Spanish dishes.

During the period of Lent in Spain, Fridays are usually reserved for fish dishes. One of the most well balanced and beloved dishes served during that period is cod fish with chickpeas (or beans) and spinach, which also tends to have a few potatoes thrown in for good measure. It's a great meat substitute even without the fish, since the spinach is packed with iron, and both beans and chickpeas are packed with low-fat, heart healthy protein. The potatoes balance everything out by bringing in some carbohydrates. This dish is a great way to eat vegetarian during the week and still have something delicious, filling and healthy. 

I changed up the way I made it this time since I had the benefit of using fresh beans. Taking a tip from Jamie Oliver's Humble Beans, I cooked them along with a few veggies and skin-on garlic. When the beans were done, I peeled the skin off of the tomatoes and garlic, mashed them in a bowl, and added them back to the drained beans. I then sauteed the beans with potatoes (cooked with the beans) and some frozen spinach (fresh would have been better but it's all I had). I added some reserved cooking liquid for moisture, red pepper flake for heat, a few good glugs of olive oil, and a splash of red wine vinegar. The dish turned out great, and I didn't even miss the fish. Not to mention, it'd be great on toast or crostini.

Cranberry Beans with Spinach and Potatoes

1 1/2 cups fresh or dried cranberry beans (or other medium size white bean)
2 tomatoes (or 1 very large one)
1/2 an onion
3 garlic cloves
3 dried bay leaves
1 large potato or 2 small, peeled and diced
1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and drained, or 2 cups packed fresh spinach
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground rosemary
1 teaspoon red pepper flake
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
olive oil

1. Cover beans, tomatoes, onion, garlic and bay leaves with cold water and bring to a boil in a large pot. Simmer on medium-low heat until beans are almost cooked through, about 50 minutes (longer if you are using dried beans) then add potatoes to the pot. 

2. When the potatoes and beans are tender, reserve half of the cooking liquid and remove the tomatoes, onion, and garlic from the pot. Discard the onion, but keep the tomato and garlic on a plate. Peel the tomatoes and garlic and mash them with a fork. Drain potatoes and beans and set aside. 

3. In a skillet, heat up olive oil (about 3 Tbsp) along with the mashed tomatoes and garlic. Add the potato and bean mixture, thyme, rosemary, red pepper flake and black pepper. Saute for a minute then slowly add 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking liquid. Check for salt and season to taste. Add spinach and cook another 30 seconds (or until fresh spinach has wilted). If the mixture appears dry, continue adding cooking liquid (I used about 1/3 cup total). Add vinegar and cook another 2 minutes until flavors come together. Check one last time for salt. Enjoy!


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